9-Hour Tests, Drill-and-Kill, Suicides: Welcome to Chinese Education

Rote memorization, a grueling nine-hour college admission exam known as the gaokao, cramming schools every evening and every weekend; is this really a healthy way to educate young people?

Healthy or not, it is the Chinese way. And it does produce impressive results, if you believe test scores are the main goal of education.

In the fall of 2012, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) tested 510,000 students between ages 15 and 16 in 65 economies, including 34 OECD countries — a sample they say represents 28 million students. The test was given in reading, math and science, and among those 34 countries, the U.S. performed slightly below average while Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), Korea and Japan came out on top.

The tests are known as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and are given every three years.

But Are Cramming and Drilling Really the Way to Go?

Even some Chinese parents are having their doubts.

From The Guardian

Chinese parents and educators see their own system as corrupt, dehumanising, pressurised and unfair. In fact, many are looking to the west for answers.


As long as China’s education system remains vast but resource-constrained, Lao (Kaisheng, a professor in the education department of Beijing Normal University) added, its schools will default to testing as a reliable indicator of competence. “The education system here puts a heavy emphasis on rote memorisation, which is great for students’ test-taking ability but not for their problem-solving and leadership abilities or their interpersonal skills,” he said. “Chinese schools just ignore these things.”

This is interesting in light of the adoption of Common Core State Standards in the U.S. Embraced now by 45 of the U.S states, (although some states, including Indiana, New York and California are having second thoughts or at least postponing their implementation), the thrust of these standards and their associated tests is precisely to promote creative, original thinking and problem-solving, rather than just the “fill-in-the-blanks” tests that were emblematic of the No Child Left Behind era.

Not so in China, where drilling-and-killing is the order of the day.

Chinas Education System Is Killing its Students

Occasionally, reminders of the system’s ruthlessness cause soul-searching. In 2012, pictures of a classroom of Chinese high-school students hooked up to intravenous amino acid drips while studying for the gaokao went viral on social media. Last May two teenagers in Jiangsu killed themselves after “failing to complete homework,” according to state media. The Guardian reports that in 2012, a student emerged from the exam to learn that his mother had died in a car crash 12 days prior; the school and his relatives conspired not to tell him so as to not distract him.

Suicide is the top cause of death among Chinese youth, according to China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

In fact, it’s become such a problem that some Chinese universities are now forcing incoming students to sign waivers absolving the university of responsibility for a student’s suicide.

No, the Chinese education system is not a healthy one.

Are Those Amazing Shanghai Scores Just Too Amazing?

In addition, it turns out that those outstanding scores from Shanghai might actually be rigged.

For one thing, although Shanghai’s 23 million people make up less than 2 percent of China’s population, its per capita GDP is more than double the national average; its college enrollment rate is four times as high. In other words, it is hardly representative of the whole of China.

And here’s more reason to question these numbers: nearly half of Shanghai’s school-age children belong to migrant families and were effectively barred from taking the test. China has a residence registration system, which means that these students are forced to attend high school and take tests in their home provinces. Here schools are woefully understaffed, and test scores are much lower. The scores from other parts of China were not released.

Shanghai may be number one in the PISA rankings, but it comes dead last in terms of raising healthy well-rounded children who are inspired to discover things on their own.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Mauvette Joesephine
Catherine Fisher3 years ago

Getting a few more marks isn't worth it if it causes this kind of child abuse!!!
This should be illegal.

Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe3 years ago

Kids don't need that sort of stress!!

Jordan G.
Jordan G3 years ago

Would love to see this level of interest in American schooling issues.

No ... we're better off criticizing others rather than fixing our own problems.

Arrogant American exceptionalism at its ignorant worst.

Yes, you can accomplish both, but you don't see it happening: Common Core is Complete Crap.

Jessica K.
Jessica K3 years ago

There has to be some balance so people can learn to be inspired and create, not just be rote and mechanical. Education needs to have some of the former for it to truly be evolutionary. Thanks.

Connie O.
Connie O3 years ago

thank you ... I have heard this for years.

Marie-Anne Phillips

This is a perfect insight into how they don't value animal life in china. Eg; Bear bile farms, skinning animals alive for their fur trades. Just to mention a few.

Donna F.
Donna F3 years ago


Carole R.
Carole R3 years ago

Awful. Sure glad I wasn't a kid in China!

Lynn C.
Lynn C3 years ago

James C thank you for your comments and for asking a question that comes to mind often when education is the topic: "Perhaps experienced teachers on this forum can explain why children are less aware now of the world around them, cannot think laterally and cannot hold a coherent conversation."
Pointing fingers at another country's education system is something this country should n o t do. C'mon folks, kids in this country commit suicide because of bullying, or after they've shot up the classroom, to cite a few examples. We need to put our own house in order before we tell someone else what to do.

Sydney M
Sydney M3 years ago

Cultural differences aside, we are only children for a very short period of time in our lives. What a shame that some kids are forced to spend those precious years working so hard. Now, on the other side of the coin are those from countries where education is barely if at all valued (Mexico, for instance). There is a happy medium, and in my opinion the kids in "the middle" are the best off ......

An appropriate combination of Work Play = a more well rounded child